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April 9, 2017Missiology

Must-Haves for Innovation in Missions (Part One)

Christian ministries are not insulated from the hyper-speed of change in the twenty-first century.
Must-Haves for Innovation in Missions (Part One)

Knowledge and information are growing at rates never before seen in history (The Technium, 2008). This explosion of information, and the attendant introduction of new technologies driven by it, has led to a breakneck pace of change in the world around us. Even those of us involved in sharing the eternal and unchanging good news find ourselves in an environment where we either adapt or risk organizational death.

There are no easy guidebooks for adapting to the rapidly-changing world around us. We end up needing to experiment and try things, without knowing if the changes we are making will in fact help us serve God more effectively. Achieving and maintaining a culture of innovation and creativity in the context of missions brings with it significant leadership challenges, but also holds the promise of greater effectiveness as we leverage the changes around us for God’s glory.

Several colleagues were sitting around a conference table discussing a proposed methodology for Bible translation which could potentially revolutionize the effort to get God’s word in an understandable form to every people group needing it. It promised to create natural, accurate translations in a fraction of the time we had been able to achieve at our most aggressive pace.

The claim was ambitious and the prospect was exciting, but I could see the consternation and skepticism on the face of one of our most respected translation consultants. The presentation clearly had not convinced him, yet without his support, I knew the idea would never even get a hearing from those who mattered most on our staff. At one point, another colleague sitting next to this consultant leaned over and asked, “What would you think about just trying this in a single location, as a pilot project, just to see if it will work?” That consultant considered for a moment and replied, “Yes, I think we could let them try it and see what it produces.”

This experience underscored for me the human challenges we face to introduce innovations in ministry. Many ideas which might end up materially improving our service can look irresponsible on the surface, and those whose strength is rooted in our historic ministry can look at such ideas askance, without giving them a chance to prove themselves.

Interestingly, such challenges are not confined to the ministry context. It turns out that any human endeavor, be it scientific research or the invention of new products for sale in the marketplace, confronts many of the same human challenges. I have found that the lessons learned about innovation in these wider contexts have helpfully informed us in The Seed Company to more effectively encourage creativity and innovation in the Bible translation realm. Here are several lessons about innovation developed in the commercial marketplace and the world of science and how they have played out in a ministry context, specifically in the field of Bible translation.

Pilot Projects

One strategy for keeping a mission fresh and encouraging creativity and innovation is the launching of pilot projects. Pilot projects are small-scale, tentative explorations to test new ideas. Successful companies that produce everything from zoom lenses to video games to toothpaste thrive on experimentation. They produce and test prototypes, then refine and retest them until they have a product they are confident they can take to the marketplace. (1) In The Seed Company, most of our pilot projects are related to Bible translation methodology or project execution.

Several years ago, The Seed Company launched a Guest Bible Scholar program. This program was created to address the urgent need to check a growing number of translations of scripture around the world for faithfulness and exegetical accuracy. Historically, the need for checking translations of scripture has been handled by a group of professional Bible translation consultants. However, the rising global interest in scripture translation into lesser-known languages has resulted in a serious shortage of qualified consultants to train translation teams and check their work. The concept was to see if Bible scholars from seminaries and Christian universities could be trained to use their biblical knowledge to supplement the efforts of professional Bible translation consultants to meet this need.

The first batch of Bible scholar candidates was screened carefully to keep the group small and to increase the likelihood of success. This kept our initial financial investment relatively low. The small size of the initial cadre also gave the effort a low profile, which was less threatening to those who might misunderstand. This initial foray produced some positive results, which suggested that we could involve many other Bible scholars in the effort. We also gleaned some key learnings in the process:

  • Our capacity to deploy Bible scholars in these roles was entirely dependent upon the readiness of consultants to shepherd these scholars, especially in their initial overseas experience. Some consultants were overwhelmed with work expectations and couldn’t imagine adding the responsibility of mentoring to their load. They also were skeptical of the value these guest scholars could add, which eroded their willingness to mentor.
  • The hope that these scholars could render ongoing assistance to translators throughout the year through Internet-based communication never materialized, largely because the translators were not used to the idea of seeking help on the Internet and because their Internet access was spotty.
  • The value of the contributions these scholars made grew over time. The benefits of the initial visits mainly accrued to the scholar him or herself, whereas the later visits were beneficial to the translation teams and to the supervising translation consultant.

This example demonstrates some key features of fruitful pilot project innovations—small scope, low cost, and an iterative process whereby early trials are thoroughly evaluated and learnings are used to improve the design of later ones.

Rigorous, Honest Evaluation

A number of years ago, before my time in The Seed Company, I supported the launch of a project to translate exegetical resources from English into a major East Asian language. The idea was to equip speakers of minority languages in East Asia to understand the text of the Bible and thus translate more accurately in their languages. The proposal called for hiring translators from the East Asian Christian diaspora to do the translation work. Most of the translators were pastors or seminary professors. Although the project was expensive, it resonated with giving partners in North America and was generously supported in prayers and finances for several years.

At some point along the way, the translated exegetical resources were reviewed by minority language translators in East Asia who were translating the Bible into their own languages. To my horror, the translators found that the texts which were intended to help them were nearly unusable due to poor application of translation principles and the sophisticated level of language used. Attempts to adjust the level of language to match the target audience proved ineffective. In the end, with profuse apologies to our financial partners, and to the consternation of some of the field partners in the project, I terminated our participation.

This anecdote illustrates the need for honest, regular evaluation of innovations as they are being developed. Testing and evaluation of the translated exegetical resources should have been conducted sooner. This could have led to an improvement of project design and significantly reduced the losses we incurred pursuing the flawed proposal. On the other hand, the fact that an evaluation was eventually done exposed the flaws and stopped the unwise spending, better late than never. It also illustrates that there are no guarantees in innovation. There are always financial risks associated with being innovative, and not every idea turns out to be a fruitful one.

When significant funding has been invested in an innovative project, it can develop a momentum and constituency of its own. The mission leader needs to have courage to conduct a fair evaluation of the project’s merits and to make a decision which may disappoint some along the way. He or she also needs to be prepared to explain the decision to partners and financial supporters.

The Role of the Champion

Recently, Texas Instruments conducted a fascinating survey, reviewing its last fifty or so successful and unsuccessful new-product introductions, and found that one factor marked every failure: “Without exception we found we hadn’t had a volunteer champion. There was someone we cajoled into taking on the task” (Peters and Waterman 1982, 203).

While our experience in The Seed Company is not quite as striking as this example from Texas Instruments, I also have observed the profound difference a champion makes in seeing an innovation through to fruition. Various times in my leadership journey, I have had what seemed to me to be a great idea, but I did not have time or capacity to pursue it. When I assigned someone to pursue the idea, or tried to persuade another to pick it up, it usually went nowhere. But when we have had someone who had his or her own vision for an innovation, his or her personal passion and commitment carried it to scale with profound impact.

In 1999, CRU’s Jesus Film Project approached The Seed Company about partnering together to translate the Gospel of Luke into the thirty largest remaining languages without a Jesus Film. SIL International seconded Katy Barnwell to The Seed Company to give leadership to an effort to develop a highly efficient, focused approach to the translation of Luke’s Gospel and the production of a Jesus Film script. The strategy brought teams of translators from a cluster of languages together in a series of workshops over a three-year period to receive training together, exchange ideas, and work on their translations. An increase of productivity achieved by the synergy of working together, valuable consultant time used most efficiently in the workshop setting, and maximum leveraging of the intuitive knowledge of speakers of the languages combined to significantly accelerate the translation process.

Thus was born what has become known as the Luke Partnership, an effort that has seen the Gospel of Luke and a Jesus Film produced in almost two hundred languages, blessing millions of people. This innovation could not have been taken to scale apart from the persistent, tireless efforts of its champion, Dr. Barnwell.

Innovations can be initiated and pursued without a passionate, visionary champion, but I have found that having a champion is a corporate treasure when pushing innovations forward. The singular focus of a champion can mean that other systems in the organization need to be adjusted to give space for the champion to run. Rules and guidelines which apply generally to our operations may occasionally need to be bent to accommodate the efficient pursuit of an innovative goal.

This kind of flexibility can create anomalies and inconvenience requiring leadership courage driven by a commitment to fostering an environment of innovation. (2) In Barnwell’s case, we both adjusted expectations for the management of some of the details of the Luke Partnership projects, and we assigned extra staff to give the initiative key administrative support.

Read Must-Haves for Innovation in Missions, Part Two (Unexpected Benefits; Parallel Innovations; Risks; Conclusion), next Sunday on The Exchange.


[1] Peters and Waterman (1982, 134ff) make a strong case that a predilection for experimentation is defining characteristic of companies with an excellent performance.

[2] Peters and Waterman (1982, 211-212) discuss the vital role that leadership support plays in enabling innovation champions to succeed.


EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 194-203. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved.

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Must-Haves for Innovation in Missions (Part One)